You only have to travel about 20 blocks downtown from the Broadway theatre district to discover a thriving new theatrical community in New York, the burgeoning world of Off Broadway theatres. From Union Square west to Chelsea and north to Gramercy Park, several relatively new and some existing theatres are hosting the hot tickets in town, including the most recent addition to this Off Broadway neighborhood, the Gramercy Theatre, which opened last June.
A pet project for theatrical producers Chase Mishkin, Leonard Soloway, and Steven M. Levy, the Gramercy was born with a specific purpose in mind. "We recognized that there was a problem with Off Broadway theatres," says Mishkin, who has produced several recent successes with Soloway and Levy, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Collected Stories, Gross Indecency, and As Bees in Honey Drown. "At the time, we had two of the long-running Off Broadway shows and we realized we were tying up two of the bigger theatres. There are tons of Off Off Broadway theatres which have 99 seats or less, and then there are some that have 250 seats, but there are only about three which have up to 499 seats. We felt there was a tremendous need for another theatre this size, a middle house."
With the mission to open another 499-seater, Levy, the "real estate-oriented" partner of the three, sent scouts looking all around New York for over a year to find the appropriate venue. The discovery was made on East 23rd Street between Lexington and Park Avenues at the site of an old movie house. Built in 1936, the movie theatre showed Indian films in recent years--unfortunately, a losing commercial proposition for the previous owner, but a winning opportunity for Mishkin and company. "A lot of buildings are not good candidates for a theatre, because they don't have a wide enough expanse," she says. "And you can't have a space that has a lot of posts in it. Converting an old movie house was a good idea."
Once procured, the space was surveyed by architect Thomas Tsue of New York-based Thomas Tsue Architects to determine the feasibility of a renovation. According to Tsue, the movie house hadn't changed much from the 30s, although it seemed as though it had been slightly remodeled in the 50s. "It was dilapidated, but virtually unchanged," he explains. "It was just a movie house with screens and projection equipment and old seats."
A fast-paced demolition and construction schedule began two months later and was completed last May. Tsue set out to renovate the entire space, including revamping the lobby and reraking the theatre by raising the pitch to improve sightlines and accommodate audience members with disabilities. A small stage area, which held the projection screen during the house's movie days, was razed and rebuilt with materials supplied by Morganville, NJ-based general contractor B&W Construction. New seats were supplied by Country Roads, Inc. of Greenville, MI. Westport, CT-based Robert Brannigan was the theatre consultant and New York-based Mottola-Rini Associates were the mechanical and electrical engineers.
Another initial consideration was to provide performers with state-of-the-art facilities downstairs, two group dressing rooms that can accommodate 12 performers each, and two star dressing rooms.
As the Gramercy approaches its second year with a successful seven-month run of Dinah Was to its credit and a new Roundabout production of Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashess scheduled to open this month, Mishkin is encouraged by the possibilities of Off Broadway. "There are so many worthy shows out there that deserve a start and maybe a place to move from Off Broadway, but there just aren't enough of these middle theatres," she says, adding that the Gramercy and theatres like it may spur future development. "All of a sudden, there is a lot of conversation about two or three theatres. When an idea gets in the air, it's out there in the ether, and hopefully, everyone will start to pick up on it."